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Food, Identity, and Resistance

2012 May 31

Food, Identity, and Resistance:

The chapter “Memory, identity, and resistance: Recipes from the women of Theresienstadt,” referenced World War II and the role of women in concentration camps.  The author Kathleen German writes about a woman named Mina Pachter and other anonymous women, who spent their time in concentration camps writing a cookbook.  This act of resistance changed the lives of many.  German examines the circumstances that lead these women to create the cookbook.  German states “the creation of this cookbook, its rhetorical functions as resistance rhetoric, and some implications of such acts of resistance.” The cookbook, “In Memory’s Kitchen,” is not like any ordinary cookbook.  New York Times says, “it is a Holocaust document, not unlike the poems and drawings created by the children in Theresienstadt or the diaries and papers hidden in milk cans and buried in the Warsaw ghetto.  These recipes are an act of defiance and resistance, a means of identification in a dehumanized world.  It was a life force in the face of death.”(Hell’s Own Cookbook, Lore Dickstein)

Mina Pachter died in 1944 due to a vitamin deficiency that resulted from starvation. However, amazingly enough the original manuscript traveled to Palestine and then fell into the hands of Mina’s daughter Anny Stern in New York. This cookbook is used as a unifying tool to bind generations.

In this chapter, German demonstrates how food is used as a tool to construct identity through cultures and gender.  Jones (2007) writes, “that the preparation and consumption of food is more than the processing of material goods, but that human use of food conveys meaning and that the rituals surrounding food mark social relationships of inclusion and exclusion, power and submission.  I agree with this as there as been research where food represents different meanings in different cultures around the world.  Looking at the story of Mina Pachter and the Jews in Terezin, food is a huge part of who they are and what they represent as individuals.  They have a different connection for food because there is a lack thereof and they are in desperate need for food.  Fischler (1988) sums up the importance of food and says that “food is central to our sense of identity.”  I agree that food is used as a tool that constructs who we are through cultures and gender.

In the article for today’s reading, “Foucault Studies“ Taylor examines food and how it is associated with gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and socio-economic class.  Taylor states, “the consumption of what we call meat is an overly virile aesthetics of the self that does not account for the pleasures of the other and is also a product of discipline.  She then goes on to say “a vegetarian diet can be theorized as an aesthetics and ethics of the self, a resistance to discipline.”


German organizes the chapter into three categories: recipes as markers of identity, recipes are reminders of relationships, and recipes as connections to community through ritual.  How are these recipes similar or different to the one’s you grew up with or are familiar with?  What do they represent?

In Taylor’s article, “Foucault Studies,” she says that fat and unhealthy eating are associated with immortality and give rise to guilt.  Do you feel a sense of guilt when you eat certain foods?  If so, what foods?

The New York Times Article: “Hell’s Own Cookbook” says that “unique among hundreds of concentration camps, Theresienstadt was used as a ”model camp” — in a perverse piece of Nazi public relations — to show the world how well Hitler was treating the Jews. It was called, not without black humor, the paradise ghetto.”  What do you think about this statement?  How does it make you feel? Here is the link to the article:

Dickstein’s “Hell’s Own Cookbook” makes reference to the conditions in Theresienstadt and says, “For the elderly, like Mina Pachter, it was even worse. In May 1942, the Jewish Council instituted triage rationing: children and laborers were allotted more food than those least likely to survive. The elderly became desperate scavengers, pouncing on piles of potato skins and rummaging in garbage. It was in this hell that Mina Pachter made her cookbook.”  This quote stood out to me and I thought it might strike you.  How does this statement make you feel?  Do you think we take food for granted because it is so accessible to us?

13 Responses leave one →
  1. kikomr permalink
    May 31, 2012

    Kathleen German’s chapter organization tells me about how food communication is recurring every day in our lives. As the women wrote the recipes for the book in the concentration camps, they did not have any physical attachment to real life besides watching the guards sleep in decently sized tents. Writing the recipes is what kept them sane. As German states, recipes are also reminders of relationships. Hanging in my mother’s kitchen is a family recipe of pork and sauerkraut that has been passed down through generations from Germany. The relationships that food can foster are ones that are important to our lives. Recipes also foster connections through ritual. My family always has the famous pork and sauerkraut every New Years dinner because it is supposed to give good luck. We identify with our accomplishments over the year because we consumed that special meal. But anyways, I think that the women of that camp described in German’s article are pioneers of the food movement. I agree with your post that the cookbook was a unifying tool to bind generations. The book exemplifies all three of German’s categories and demonstrates how food is really used as a tool of communication.
    I thought that Taylor’s article was interesting because it touched on a subject that is not often discussed. In the Greek days, sex and food were one in the same. Taylor argues that contrary to popular belief, food has not been surpassed by sex as the medium of self-constitution. I agree with Taylor in that unhealthy eating can lead to guilt and sadness. It is just a byproduct of fatty foods. People feel different after stuffing their faces with a brownie than prepared a real meal from scratch.

    • Maya Smith permalink
      June 1, 2012

      Your anecdote about pork and sauerkraut is really interesting and fun! It is nice that you continue this cultural tradition with your family and that this recipe can be preserved from generation to generation. Though we do not have any family recipes that I know of, my family eats a lot of international food because my dad grew up in many countries. Not only does it help me understand different cultures and their customs, but it also helps my dad identify with his childhood, even if he does not live in France, Peru, or Mexico anymore. By him showing me some of his old memories with food, it helps preserve them so that I can one day cook the same food for my children.

    • gilliakl permalink
      June 1, 2012

      In response to kikomr:

      This piece also reminds me of my own family as well. Every time that I would go to my grandmother’s house, I would look through our family’s cookbook. Over the years my grandmother has made her own cookbook of some of her favorite dishes that she likes to make at family gatherings. In my family, food and cooking is a way to bond and form relationships. Every time I went to my grandparents house I looked forward to helping my grandparents to cook meals. Not only did I learn how to cook at a young age but I learned some of our family’s traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. It served as a way to connect each generation of my family through something that we all like and enjoy doing, which is preparing and eating food.

    • Katie Love permalink
      June 8, 2012

      I love the bit about your pork and sauerkraut, kikomr! It is especially amazing that you identify your accomplishments over the year because of consuming that special meal. I believe in luck and symbols like this but my family does not find these things of importance the way I do and I wish they did for fun memories and rituals like yours.
      I do remember as a child, my grandfather, who is Greek, would bake a loaf of bread at Christmas and Easter and hide a dime in it. Whoever found the dime was supposed to receive good luck (and not a terrible stomach ache)! For whatever reason he stopped doing this and I wish we still did.

  2. tamulida permalink
    May 31, 2012

    In response to kikomr-

    I like how you related this to your own personal experience of how you and your “family always have the famous pork and sauerkraut every New Years dinner because it is supposed to give good luck.” I did not know that about pork and sauerkraut. I will keep that in mind for the coming year. I also like how you related German’s essay to Taylor’s and how they argue that food is used as a tool of communication. You provide some great examples when you say, “In the Greek days, sex and food were one in the same. Taylor argues that contrary to popular belief, food has not been surpassed by sex as the medium of self-constitution. You make some valid points that I didn’t think of when writing my post on food, identity, and resistance.

  3. scalesaj permalink
    June 1, 2012

    I felt that this piece by German really got to the heart of why there is a field of Food Communication. So many things, with a little stretch of the imagination, could fall into other fields such as marketing, environmental studies, or health, but this seems all about the creation and sharing of meaning. It was extraordinary to imagine in such a place of suffering that this book was created. It was interesting however that German looked at the cookbook as a way of asserting existence and community. I especially agree with his idea that the cook book inspired a sense of community. Food is not just nourishment but a sign of culture. There is at least one dish with most families that makes the holidays, and without it, things just aren’t the same. By codifying the recopies in this book, the authors where helping to stabilize, and record that picture of their own identity.
    The remarkable journey that the cookbook goes on is a great example of how an object such as this can not only be created as a symbol of identity of one group or ethnicity as Taylor points out, but also gather significances with other through its journey. Now every time someone makes a dish from this book they will be transported to the world of the writer.

  4. Maya Smith permalink
    June 1, 2012

    I agree with everyone’s comments that food has an element of identification that other items do not. A piece of clothing or jewelry can be passed down from generation to generation, but there is something more magical about being able to cook the same meal as your great-great-ancestors did. Cooking can be shared on a more personal level. German’s piece showed us how people could make a bad situation into one of unification. The cookbook was their way of keeping their individuality in the midst of the holocaust, when diversity was the cause of hatred. Preserving the special aspects of ones culture is what makes history.

    I have to say that I found Taylor’s piece on the Ethics of Eating to be very eye opening. I never thought of vegetarianism as a way of expressing feminism. Now thinking about it, I have met very few men who are vegetarians. Manly food is typically dishes that include a lot of meat or different types of meat, but on a conscious level, I do not think we connect eating meat with hunting and asserting our dominance over other animals. We eat meat because it taste good and we know that it is nutritious, for the most part. It is interesting to connect our eating habits now to the cultural eating habits of our ancestors.

  5. gilliakl permalink
    June 1, 2012

    In Taylor’s article, “Foucault Studies,” she says that fat and unhealthy eating are associated with immortality and give rise to guilt. Do you feel a sense of guilt when you eat certain foods? If so, what foods?

    I have many friends that are vegetarian and others that because of religious beliefs do not eat pork. I feel a strong sense of guilty when I cannot withhold my urge to eat a large quarter pounder with cheese from McDonalds or several slices of bacon from D-Hall on campus. I believe the main reason that I feel so bad is due to the fact that I feel that I could have been stronger and not given in to my urges to eat meat. I can be hard at times, because I feel that why should I deny myself foods that I like because they do not necessarily eat those foods as well. I believe that another reason that I feel so bad is because I feel that as a friend that I should show them that I support them by eating foods that they can when we are together.

    • Katie Love permalink
      June 8, 2012

      Gilliakl, I found this fact of unhealthy eating and consuming of fats associated with immorality and guilt interesting also in Taylor’s article. I also think it is incredibly noble that you believe you should also resist eating meat or other foods your friends do not eat because you want to support them – my love of food would overpower this support unfortunately although I have immense respect that they can resist things I find so delicious!
      I feel guilty when I overindulge over a day’s time rather than eating specific foods. Pancakes for breakfast, tune salad sandwich for lunch and steak and potatoes for dinner all peppered with beers and other drinks. I think I feel guilty because I also work out a lot and these indulgences set me back in my mind and physical progress. I need to learn to cut my portions and indulge in a little each day as opposed to a lot one one day.

  6. brubakra permalink
    June 1, 2012

    I thought the fact that these women in Theresienstadt were able to find a light and a way to keep themselves distracted from the horror and destruction surrounding them is incredible. Keeping something from the Nazi’s, even something as simple as a cookbook, was extremely dangerous, because it allowed for an identity besides the number they assigned. I find it interesting that it was a cookbook and not a diary or poems. Having cookbook recipes provided different opportunities for the women to express who they were, where they came from, their influences, and their pride. When I was in a creative writing class, I did a whole portfolio based on the theme ‘identity’, and one of the writings was a recipe, because it can identify us more strongly than we realize. In the article, German mentions how the table allows for an immediate unity to be formed among strangers, and the same can apply for a cookbook of many different authors. These women had nothing left to their names in the Terezin camp, but they took their daydreaming of what used to bring there, maybe now lost, family together and preserved them. How the women drew upon “reassuring practices of food preparation as they define, remember, and retell the stories of their lives,” really hit hard how powerful food communication even at this desperate time in WWII is (140). I always feel more connected to my food whenever my mother or grandmother wrote that recipe. When I make those meals that they inspire, I feel connected to them and proud to be their girl, even if my mom is halfway across the world and my grandmother has passes away. Recipes are also a great connection to the community, as I discovered, once the ‘Brubaker Brownies’ (just really good Betty Crocker brownies…) became famous in middle and high school. I always had to make them for bake sales, parties, and birthdays, because everyone loved them! It made me smile and feel proud to bring those brownies every time for the main reason that they brought people together, and that is what good food is supposed to do.

    In reference to Foucault’s article, I definitely feel guilty about eating some foods, and that’s partially due to our cultures’ infatuation with diet and being skinny. I feel pressure not to order fast food because it’s not good for you, I don’t eat a lot of burgers because of pressure from what I think guys will think, I can’t even eat ice cream anymore without feeling a little guilty… Taylor mentioned in her article at one point that the Greek’s used to see their bodies as works of art, and nowadays they are something to be deciphered or simply inherent. I wish we could adopt this older way of thinking about our bodies, because our bodies are spectacular and intricate, and being overcritical over them isn’t always healthy.

  7. Katie Love permalink
    June 8, 2012

    This article was so incredibly interesting to me! Kathleen German investigates the writing of a cookbook by women in concentration camp Theresienstadt during World War 2. This effort was not only a resistance to Nazi forces but was a way that their culture was preserved that is unimaginable. Creating this cookbook is a priceless tool that protected not only the culture but also identities of these women. It is articles like this that truly show the effects of food being used to construct the identity of a culture or gender as well as create an image within history and showcase a certain time and event in that history. It is work like this that I enjoy so immensely, learning about one topic such as history through another.
    Great summary tamulida! In response to your first question about the organization of our personal recipes, I gather and enjoy mostly family recipes from my mother and other siblings because I believe they identify my family and cooking, are reminders of the relationships I have with these people and connect me to them.

  8. Josie Warren permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Of German’s three categories, I would say the recipes I grew up with are most similar to “recipes as markers of identity.” Earlier in the semester, I mentioned that since my family is Italian, every year the day after Christmas, we make pasta from scratch and then use a recipe that has been in our family for over 50yrs now to make sauce. Since I participate in making this recipe every year, it has become apart of my cultural identity. In the article “Foucault Studies,” as you said, Taylor mentions that food adds to our identity in that it is “a product of self discipline” and “a vegetarian diet can be theorized as an aesthetics and ethics of the self, a resistance to discipline.” I could not agree more. As you know, for my semester project for this class, I experimented with being a Vegetarian for two weeks and learned a lot about a part of my identity that I didn’t know before: My self control and discipline. Not eating meat for two whole weeks was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but I got through it because I have more self-control than I thought I had. I learned vegetarian recipes that will remain apart of my identity throughout my life.

  9. Josie Warren permalink
    June 25, 2012

    In response to Maya’s post, I also found Taylor’s piece on the “Ethics of Eating” very interesting. Though, since my project is revolved around vegetarianism, I already knew that more females tend to be vegetarians than males. It was an eye opening revelation at the time for me too though. I made my facebook status about vegetarianism, reaching out to those who practice this diet to see their thoughts and of the 19 responses I got, only one over them was a guy. It was a shocking revelation. Taylor is most definitely right in that vegetarianism is a way of expressing the female identity.

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